Why Michigan State-Oregon is vital for two leagues' playoff chances

September 5, 2014

Michigan State AD Mark Hollis can’t say with certainty how the College Football Playoff selection committee will view the seventh-ranked Spartans’ much-anticipated game Saturday at No. 3 Oregon, but as a member of the NCAA men’s basketball committee he has a better reference point than most.

If football’s committee operates anything like basketball, an early-season intersectional duel between two Top 10 teams might carry the same weight as two or three of Tom Izzo’s annual November clashes with powers like Kentucky and Kansas.

“Games played in November in basketball absolutely carry the same weight as games played in March,” said Hollis, who is two years into a five-year term on that committee. “Sometimes in football, it’s helped teams to lose early and give them a chance to recover, but the [football] committee is going to do a good job ensuring they take into account who won that game and what did it look like.”

Michigan State-Oregon would already be the most intriguing non-conference game of 2014 if for no other reason than the two successful programs’ contrasting styles. But it could also serve as a telling window into football’s new postseason selection process if one or both teams live up to their preseason billing.

On the one hand, you could argue the game has lower stakes than it would have in the BCS era, when any matchup between highly ranked foes at any point in the season was a potential national championship elimination game. Seven of the 16 BCS title games pitted two undefeated teams. One loss – even to a highly respected opponent – severely dampened one’s chances.

That’s not likely to be the case in the four-team era. Never in the BCS era did four power-conference teams finish undefeated, and only twice, in 2004 and ’09, were there even three. Therefore, the loser of Saturday’s game may find its championship hopes barely dented.

But the game could still have major implications come December – quite possibly for multiple teams.

On the most basic level, a victory Saturday could significantly bolster the victor’s resume come Dec. 7. Let’s say for example that Oregon gets the win, loses once in conference play but still ends up winning the Pac-12 at 12-1. If the fourth playoff spot comes down to the Ducks and, say, 11-1 Big 12 champion Baylor, Oregon’s early-season conquest could well put it over the top, especially given the Bears’ weak non-conference slate (SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo).

But let’s also assume it’s an extremely close game. The Spartans, which go in as 11-point road underdogs, play the Ducks tight for 59 minutes but lose on a last-second Marcus Mariota touchdown pass. Then they turn around and win the Big Ten and are themselves playoff contenders. Theoretically, a close road loss against a marquee opponent should impress the committee more than a team that beats up on three or four cupcakes.

“It is taking a risk to fly out to Oregon and play a very formidable opponent,” said Hollis. “Our intent is to win the game. But if a great game comes down to the wire, the committee has to take that into account like the basketball committee does.”

Meanwhile, Saturday’s result will also impact any other Big Ten and Pac-12 teams that may wind up fighting for a playoff spot – beyond just the nebulous “conference perception” discussion. If football follows the basketball model, the committee won’t be judging teams based on the strength of their conference but rather the quality of the actual opponents it beat. Therefore, it behooves Ohio State for Michigan State to beat Oregon – and for Michigan to beat Notre Dame, for that matter – to enhance the Buckeyes’ own resume should they wind up beating those conference foes.

“In basketball, the conference is really kept out of the room,” said Hollis. “Yet Michigan State is going to play conference opponents, and [the league’s non-conference performance] is going to affect how good we are. That gives you a measurement.”

As an example, consider the RPI ratings in basketball, which consist of two-thirds opponents’ records and one-third opponents’ opponents’ records. By the time teams reach conference play in January their schedule strength has largely been predetermined. If Big Ten teams collectively notch a bunch of marquee non-conference wins, it bolsters the entire league’s RPI data. Its various tourney contenders can then rack up important Top 50 wins in conference play. Conversely, if too many SEC teams lose to Mercer and Wofford, it drags down everybody’s numbers and reduces opportunities for quality wins.

Theoretically, those results will be magnified in football with the smaller number of games. However, there’s one significant difference between the two models. The football committee is taking a decidedly more subjective approach in selecting “the best four teams.” Not only is it refraining from using an overriding metric like the RPI but in fact it’s eschewing schedule rating systems altogether.

“They’ve been very clear to us,” said Stephen Prather, whose company, SportSource Analytics, is providing the committee with all of its official data. “They do not want an actual number or metric on strength of schedule.”

Instead, said Prather, they will supply the committee with a number of comparative measures. Members will be able to look at two teams’ schedules and see not only the records of their opponents and where the games were played but also which teams their opponents did or did not face. As an example of something the committee might take into consideration, Prather, a former Vanderbilt baseball player, cited the Commodores’ 2012 team, which went 5-3 in the SEC but did so by beating five teams that won a combined six SEC games.

“When [committee members] are comparing and contrasting teams, part of it will be the elements that go into a schedule,” he said. “It’s probably not going to be very satisfying to a lot of the analytics community that wants formulas. ‘We looked at Stanford’s schedule and it was 46.45 and Alabama’s was 46.34, so then Stanford’s is better.’ We’re not looking at it that way, and the committee’s not looking at it that way.

“… We could build a fancy algorithm, but kind of how the Supreme Court said you know pornography when you see it, you just know a hard schedule when you see it.”

In other words, the committee doesn’t need a computer to tell them how difficult it is for a road team to win at Autzen Stadium. Or how impressive it would be for the Ducks to roll up 500 yards on Michigan State coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s defense.

So while on the surface Saturday’s game might not have the do-or-die stakes it would have in the past, that would only be true if the BCS standings were still in effect. In the selection committee era, games like Michigan State-Oregon could take on even more importance.

“I think the non-conference game will go from being fun spectator events to being something more important because of the impact it will have not just on the teams playing but the rest of the teams in their conference,” said Prather. “How does that bear out in making the Playoff or not? I don’t think anyone knows.“

If Saturday’s winner remains in the conversation come December, them we may just find out.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.